Provocations and the Ping-Pong Analogy

Many powerful and transformational ideas emerge in the world of education, become trends and then vanish. This is sometimes because the vast majority of educators never fully understand it in the first place.

The latest example of this is “provocations”.

All sorts of educators are using the word and they believe they are planning them for their students. Sadly, very often, these so-called provocations are turning into missed opportunities, throw-away activities that really don’t transform the subsequent pedagogy in the slightest.

I find this really frustrating, and I find the fact that educators are unable to see both the simple and the sophisticated information that students are revealing to them almost impossible to comprehend. As I try and wrap my head around this, I see the following patterns:

  • Some people, if they were being honest, have little or no interest in changing their pedagogy. They want to do what they’ve always done and see anything that threatens that – regardless of the source – as a threat. As a result, they develop a sort of selective blindness to any of the fascinating information their students reveal. It may well be impossible to move people away from that mentality and so it may be necessary to move them out of our schools instead.
  • Some people are – perhaps unwillingly – so caught up in teacher-speak, written curriculum, standards and old habits they too are blinded – they can’t “see the wood for the trees”. Some of these people may still be rescued, but only if you can still see the glint in their eye that indicates some interest in who their students really are and enough curiosity to want to find out.
  • Some people are – fortunately – poised, ready, willing and able to plan and carry out provocative experiences that give their students opportunities to reveal powerful and useful information to them. However, they may not know how to use that information to transform their pedagogy and, of course, there is no single, universal answer. Instead, what is powerful, is the teacher’s determination to find ways to do so.

A very useful analogy is Shana Upiter’s Ping Pong approach. When you provoke your students, you are hitting the ball to them… then, they hit it back to you – in all sorts of directions! Now it is up to you – the teacher – to figure out what to do with the ball and how to hit it back to them again, and so on… If you can view provocations that way – as the ongoing exchange of stimulus and response, ideas and action, thinking and questioning – you will start to understand how to use the concept in your teaching. You can also liberate yourself from thinking that provocations need to be huge, overly-planned extravaganzas!

For this to happen though, the teacher must be fascinated by the words their students write or say, the choices their students make, the way their students think, the patterns of their students’ behaviour, how their students react in different situations and the questions their students ponder.

When provocations create the conditions for inquiry – by teachers into their students – there is nothing more powerful. When they just lead into a series of activities and a whole load of teaching, they may just be another buzz-word.



  1. Joy Kirr

    Sam – Another insightful post. As always, THANK YOU for sharing your ideas! This post reminds me of a phrase I heard in Boston this summer – “bogus inquiry.” I just tweeted Sara Wilke, who introduced me to the phrase, asking for the origin so I can share it with you. SO MANY TIMES teachers ask students what to think, or to come up with questions, and then it stops there. The ping pong ball drops to the floor, rolls under the couch, and collects dust on our side of the room. We can’t let these ideas from students fall flat. I love how you laid out the patterns – it helps me realize what’s going on, and keeps me motivated to keep carrying on the back and forth with students! I love it when other students give the back and forth of ideas even better!

  2. Steve Martin

    I like this post Sam. Thoughtful. It has direct relevance to me and my current position. PYP teachers must have the self confidence (and admin support) to react to student responses and not just focus on pre-decided standards and outcomes. Student responses can then translate into student choices for further inquiry.

  3. Desiree

    Sam, we were just discussing the power of provocations with Ed yesterday. Yes, even the simplest provocation can provoke and motivate thinking and become a springboard for a game of to and fro ping pong. Once the kids are ‘hooked’ it’s green light for go from there and the challenging game of ping pong continues. Like Shana’s analogy.

  4. Pingback: Friday Newsletter: September 13, 2019 – Primary School

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